By Rich Pollack
In what might be shaping up as part of a continuing battle over beach-compatible sand offshore, Highland Beach is hoping to find ways to keep the valued but rapidly vanishing resource off its coast from going to neighboring cities.
It may be an uphill fight, however. The town has no legal claim to the sand used to replenish beaches, according to one attorney who specializes in coastal issues, and state regulators have already approved plans to dredge offshore for Boca Raton beach restoration projects for the next several years.
The question of whether Highland Beach has a way to stop another government from removing beach-compatible sand from a nearby “borrow area” surfaced after residents complained about offshore dredging done in March to restore Boca’s public beach.
That North Boca Raton Beach Nourishment Project is complete, but additional projects in Boca that may result in dredging off the Highland Beach coast could begin in 2026.
The issue of how to preserve offshore sand first surfaced in Highland Beach during a commission meeting in May after Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman began looking into the residents’ complaints. She told fellow commissioners that a limited quantity of beach-compatible sand exists off Highland Beach — sand that is about the same size and color as that on the beach — and that much of it is likely to go to other communities for their restoration projects.
She also found that Boca has a permit good through 2028 from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to remove sand off the town’s coast for additional projects.
“We are aware the town of Highland Beach does not own the sand off our shores,” she said. “Our concern is that if a catastrophic hurricane such as Michael or Andrew strikes Highland Beach, wipes out our beaches and puts residents’ homes at risk, we could not rebuild our beach with our offshore beach-compatible sands because it would have already been removed.”
Sand for Boca Raton beach renourishments through 2028 will come from the shaded area, the same area used for a project finished in April. SOURCE: City of Boca Raton
What the town can do to prevent other communities from depleting sand off its shore, if anything, is still being explored. During their second May meeting, commissioners agreed to hear a presentation at their June 2 meeting from a coastal engineer and discussed possibly interviewing environmental attorneys should legal action be needed.
The commission is also considering asking for reports from the state Department of Environmental Protection to show that all permits are being complied with.
“The goal here has got to be to stop further removal of the sand,” Commissioner John Shoemaker said.
While the dredging has stirred up concerns among some vocal residents who want to act quickly and firmly, Mayor Doug Hillman favors a more methodical approach.
“We need to hear from people who know more about this than we do,” he said. “We haven’t heard from somebody who knows what damage has been done to Highland Beach other than taking sand we might need someday. We still have a lot to learn here.”
Engineers and scientists studying coastal areas say the concern about the limited quantity of beach-compatible sand is legitimate.
Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, says such sand is getting harder to find, especially off the South Florida coast.
And once the sand is taken from borrow areas, it is essentially gone.
“Borrow areas do not regain sand within the time span of hundreds of years except in rare situations,” he said.
As a result, sand has to be trucked in from other areas, including from mines southwest of Lake Okeechobee. Bringing sand in by truck could be costly.
“Cost is related to distance,” said Gordon Thomson, a South Florida-based coastal engineer with W.F. Baird Associates. “Therefore most municipalities will take it from as close as possible.”
In the case of the North Boca Raton project, which began on March 10 and ended on April 7, sand was taken from a spot about 1,600 feet offshore designated by the state as Boca Raton Borrow Area V.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project (Boca Raton was the non-federal sponsor) placed about 550,000 cubic yards of sand on Boca’s beach, according to a city spokeswoman.
Borrow Area V held 1.35 million cubic yards of sand before the project, according to the permit for the work issued in February. Two more areas off the coast of Highland Beach that are listed on the permit application as borrow sites hold about 5.65 million cubic yards.
Boca Raton estimates that two additional projects scheduled for 2026 would likely draw sand from the borrow areas and would result in about 1 million cubic yards being placed on its beaches.
An additional permit for the future projects would not be required unless the plans have significant changes, according to a spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
One issue that concerns Gossett-Seidman and some residents is what they consider a mislabeling of the location of the borrow areas in the permit application. Although a map in the application labels the area west of the borrow area as Boca Raton, the area is in fact Highland Beach.
That is not an issue, the state DEP spokesperson said, because the agency uses “reference monuments” or coastal survey markers to map project boundaries, not municipal boundaries.
Should the town challenge the existing permit for Boca, it would likely have a tough time.
“The town of Highland Beach has a lot of obstacles if it wants to challenge the permit now,” said Ken Oertel, a Tallahassee lawyer who specializes in environmental and land use law.
Oertel said that challenges to a permit are accepted during a 20- or 30-day review period prior to approvals. After that time, it is very rare for challenges to be considered.
“Once that door closes, you’re pretty much out of luck,” he said.
Gossett-Seidman and other commissioners said they hope the issue can be resolved amicably through conversations with neighboring towns.
“A long-term cooperative program is what I’m currently proposing,” she said.